BALKANS? NO PROBLEM
Travelers’ Tales – The Best Travel Writing 2005, San Francisco
For sheer bravado and with dark Kafkaesque humour, you would have to go a long way to top Marcus Ferrar – The San Francisco Chronicle
I stretched out on the hard back-seat of the ageing diesel Mercedes and saw … the Balkans. It is not so easy to know where the Balkans are. Ask anybody in the region if they are Balkan and the answer is, definitely not; the Balkans start in the next country. But I knew I was there. Two hours after setting out from Belgrade, the car was winding up a curving road. I could see fir trees passing by above me. Night was falling. Wolves, I felt, could not be far away. I knew from the map that this was definitely the Balkans – the mountain range carrying that name. I was in Serbia and the next stop was the Bulgarian border.
Ivan approaches them with a stylish swagger. Teodora is more hesitant. She slows, wonders which way to go, stops occasionally to let others pass. Not Ivan. He treats them as a test of skills, swerving smoothly left and right, deftly measuring the angle of approach, slowing only when confronted by overwhelming odds, and never coming to a halt.
Amid the bustle of Lisbon’s dusk, I lined up with a group of Portuguese conscript soldiers for my yellow fever jab. It was 1974, revolution was in the air, colonies were being liberated, and I was off to Africa. The soldiers were going to Angola and Mozambique: I was heading to Portuguese Guinea. It would become independent in two days time. It was the sort of exotic assignment I had dreamed of when I first became a foreign correspondent.
SIGNING UP FOR COMPASSION: THE RED CROSS IS BORN AGAIN IN GENEVA
All dressed up in 1860s top hat, frock coat, embroidered waistcoat and whiskers, I’m an extra in a film, and it’s all make-believe.
Or is it? I’m a British delegate at the conference which signed the Geneva Convention founding the international Red Cross movement in 1864. As I peer around the film set, I realize it’s the chamber in Geneva’s Hotel de Ville where the conference actually took place. I’m sitting exactly where the British delegate sat. I can tell, because there’s a huge oil painting on the wall depicting the scene.
The little girl stared at the wall, and the wall stared back at her. She had stopped in her tracks before a painting of the Last Judgment in the Hotel-Dieu of Beaune in Burgundy. Christ and an array of saints and mortals gazed at her with grave, intelligent, human faces. The Archangel Michael gave her a particularly penetrating and inquiring look.
It’s a dream. A house with a view. Grasses and treetops swirl in soft breezes. Everything winds and meanders. A stream slips downhill, sidling around rocks, flowing only when it wants to, before the summer heat. The approach path curls gracefully around bushes and saplings, as if bound to them by divine providence. A snake occasionally coils itself elegantly in the middle of the way. This is luxuriant Tuscan nature – wild, wafting and undisciplined. A house in the middle of nowhere, in a primeval world.